Adolf Hitler was in a difficult situation but he also knew that Britain and France were unwilling to go to war. He also thought it unlikely that these two countries would be keen to join up with the Soviet Union, whose totalitarian system the western democracies hated more that Hitler's fascist dictatorship.
Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.
The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. The meeting ended with Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signing the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.
Lord Rothermere immediately sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler: "My dear Fuhrer everyone in England is profoundly moved by the bloodless solution to the Czechoslovakian problem. People not so much concerned with territorial readjustment as with dread of another war with its accompanying bloodbath. Frederick the Great was a great popular figure. I salute your excellency's star which rises higher and higher."
The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.
The continued state of tension in Europe which has caused such grave concern throughout the world has in no way been relieved, and in some ways been aggravated by the speech delivered at Nuremberg last night by Herr Hitler. Your Majesty's Ministers are examining the position in the light of his speech, and with the firm desire to ensure, if this is at all possible, that peace may be restored.
On the one hand, reports are daily received in great numbers, not only from official sources but from all manner of individuals who claim to have special and unchangeable sources of information. Many of these (and of such authority as to make it impossible to dismiss them as unworthy of attention) declare positively that Herr Hitler has made up his mind to attack Czechoslovakia and then to proceed further East. He is convinced that the operation can be effected so rapidly that it will be all over before France or Great Britain could move.
On the other hand, Your Majesty's representative in Berlin has steadily maintained that Herr Hitler has not yet made up his mind to violence. He means to have a solution soon - this month - and if that solution, which must be satisfactory to himself, can be obtained peacefully, well and good. If not, he is ready to march.
In these circumstances I have been considering the possibility of a sudden and dramatic step which might change the whole situation. The plan is that I should inform Herr Hitler that I propose at once to go over to Germany to see him. If he assents, and it would be difficult for him to refuse, I should hope to persuade him that he had an unequalled opportunity of raising his own prestige and fulfilling what he has so often declared to be his aim, namely the establishment of an Anglo-German understanding, preceded by a settlement of the Czechoslovakian question.
Of course I should not be able to guarantee that Dr. Benes would accept this solution, but I should undertake to put all possible pressure on him to do so. The Government of France have already said that they would accept any plan approved by Your Majesty's Government or by Lord Runciman.
We're living through indescribably tense days. The question is: Will there be war? The mobilization going on in various countries doesn't fill one with a great deal of confidence. No recent news concerning the discussions of Hitler and Chamberlain. The entire world is united in fearful suspense, for one, feel a numbing indifference because of all this waiting. The situation changes from minute to minute. Even the idea there may be war is abominable enough.
(3) Neville Chamberlain held a Cabinet meeting on 24th September 1938. Duff Cooper , First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote about it in his autobiography, Old Men Forget (1953)
The Cabinet met that evening. The Prime Minister looked none the worse for his experiences. He spoke for over an hour. He told us that Hitler had adopted a certain position from the start and had refused to budge an inch from it. Many of the most important points seemed hardly to have arisen during their discussion, notably the international guarantee. Having said that he had informed Hitler that he was creating an impossible situation, having admitted that he had "snorted" with indignation when he read the German terms, the Prime Minister concluded, to my astonishment, by saying that he considered that we should accept those terms and that we should advise the Czechs to do so.
It was then suggested that the Cabinet should adjourn, in order to give members time to read the terms and sleep on them, and that we should meet again the following morning. I protested against this. I said that from what the Prime Minister had told us it appeared to me that the Germans were still convinced that under no circumstances would we fight, that there still existed one method, and one method only, of persuading them to the contrary, and that was by
instantly declaring full mobilisation. I said that I was sure popular opinion would eventually compel us to go to the assistance of the Czechs; that hitherto we had been faced with the unpleasant alternatives of peace with dishonour or war. I now saw a third possibility, namely war with dishonour, by which I meant being kicked into the war by the boot of public opinion when those for whom we were fighting had already been defeated. I pointed out that the Chiefs of Staff had reported on the previous day that immediate mobilisation was of urgent and vital importance, and I suggested that we might one day have to explain why we had disregarded their advice. This angered the Prime Minister. He said that I had omitted to say that this advice was given only on the assumption that there was a danger of war with Germany within the next few days. I said I thought it would be difficult to deny that such a danger existed.
We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe.
We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as Symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries.
Be glad in your hearts. Give thanks to your God. People of Britain, your children are safe. Your husbands and your sons will not march to war Peace is a victory for all mankind. If we must have a victor, let us choose Chamberlain. For the Prime Minister's conquests are mighty and enduring - millions of happy homes and hearts relieved of their burden. To him the laurels. And now let us go back to our own affairs. We have had
enough of those menaces, conjured up from the Continent to confuse us
No stranger experience can have happened to Mr. Chamberlain during the past month of adventures than his reception back home in London. He drove from Heston to Buckingham Palace, where the crowd clamoured for him, and within five minutes of his arrival he was standing on the balcony of the Palace with the King and Queen and Mrs. Chamberlain.
The cries were all for "Neville," and he stood there blinking in the light of a powerful arc-lamp and waving his hand and smiling. For three minutes this demonstration lasted. Another welcome awaited the Premier in Downing Street, which he reached fifteen minutes later. With difficulty his car moved forward from Whitehall to No. 10. Mounted policemen rode fore and aft and a constable kept guard on the running board of the car.
Every window on the three floors of No. 10 and No. 11 was open and filled with faces. The windows of the Foreign Office across the way were equally full - all except one, which was made up with sandbags. Everywhere were people cheering. One of the women there found no other words to express her feelings but these, "The man who gave me back my son."
Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain stood for a few moments on the doorstep acknowledging the greeting. Then Mr. Chamberlain went to a first-floor window and leaned forward happily smiling on the people. "My good friends," he said - it took some time to still the clamour so that he might be heard - "this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany 'peace with honour.' I believe it is peace for our time."
No one in this country who examines carefully the terms under which Hitler's troops begin their march into Czechoslovakia to-day can feel other than unhappy. Certainly the Czechs will hardly appreciate Mr. Chamberlain's phrase that it is "peace with honour."
If Germany's aim were the economic and financial destruction of Czechoslovakia the Munich agreement goes far to satisfy her. But, it may be urged, while the Czechs may suffer economically, they have the political protection of an international guarantee.
What is it worth? Will Britain and France (and Russia, though, of course, Russia was not even mentioned at Munich) come to the aid of an unarmed Czechoslovakia when they would not help her in her strength?
Politically Czechoslovakia is rendered helpless, with all that that means to the balance of forces in Eastern Europe, and Hitler will be able to advance again, when he chooses, with greatly increased power.
It is really a waste of breath discussing what Mr. Chamberlain should or should not have done at Munich itself. That surrender was the inevitable Nemesis that overcome us as a reward for the follies of the years before.
The terms of the Munich Agreement turned out to be even worse than we had supposed. They amounted to unconditional surrender. Even Goering was shocked. He said afterwards that when he heard Hitler tell the conference at Munich (if such it could be called) that he proposed to occupy the Sudeten lands, including the Czech fortifications at once, 'we all knew what that meant'. But neither Chamberlain nor Daladier made a cheep of protest. Hitler did not even have to send an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain did that for him. Ashton-Gwatkin of the Foreign Office brought it from Munich to Prague for presentation to the Czech Government. He had breakfast with our Military Attaché, Brigadier Humphrey Stronge, before he showed it to the British Minister, Basil Newton. Stronge said that Czechoslovakia could never accept such terms, as they involved, amongst other things, surrendering all the fortifications, and thereby rendering her defenceless. Ashton-Gwatkin said that they had got to accept, and that there was no alternative. Stronge, in his own words, was 'staggered'; and wondered what the outcome could possibly be. Later that day, after a heated argument with some of his generals and politicians, Benes capitulated.
For the French Government to leave her faithful ally Czechoslovakia to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences. Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honour, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration. Great Britain, who would certainly have fought if bound by treaty obligations, was nevertheless now deeply involved, and it must be recorded with regret that the British Government not only acquiesced but encouraged the French Government in a fatal course.
The criticism excited by Munich never caused me the least surprise. I should very possibly indeed have been among the critics myself, if I had not happened to be in a position of responsibility. But there were two or three considerations to which those same critics ought to have regard. One was that in criticizing the settlement of Munich, they were criticizing the wrong thing and the the wrong date. They ought to have criticized the failure of successive Governments, and of all parties, to foresee the necessity of rearming in the light of what was going on in Germany; and the right date on which criticism ought to have fastened was 1936, which had seen the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in defiance of treaty provisions.
I have little doubt that if we had then told Hitler bluntly to go back, his power for future and larger mischief would have been broken. But, leaving entirely aside the French, there was no section of British public opinion that would not have been directly opposed to such action in 1936. To go to war with Germany for walking into their own backyard, which was how the British people saw it, at a time moreover when you were actually discussing with them the dates and conditions of their right to resume occupation, was not the sort of thing people could understand. So that moment which, I would guess, offered the last effective chance of securing peace without war, went by.
Prague, a sorrowing Prague, yesterday had its first day of German rule - a day in which the Czechs learned of the details of their subjection to Germany, and in which the Germans began their measures against the Jews and against those people who have "opened their mouths too wide." Prague's streets were jammed with silent pedestrians wandering about, looking out of the corners of their eyes at German soldiers carrying guns, at armoured cars, and at other military precautions. Some Czechs were seen turning up their noses at the Germans. Germans were everywhere. Bridges were occupied by troops and each bridge-head had a heavy machine-gun mounted on a tripod and pointing to the sky. Every twenty yards along the pavement two machine-guns were mounted facing each other.
Suicides have begun. The fears of the Jews grow. The funds of the Jewish community have been seized, stopping Jewish relief work. The Prague Bar Council has ordered all its "non-Aryan" members to stop practicing at once. The organization for Jewish emigration has been closed. Hundreds of people stood outside the British Consulate shouting: "We want to get away!" This is only the beginning. According to an official spokesman of the German Foreign Office in Berlin last night, the Gestapo (secret police) will have rounded up hundreds of "harmful characters" within the next few days. So far about fifty to a hundred men have been put in local gaols. "There are certain centres of resistance which need to be cleaned up," said the spokesman. "Also some people open their mouths too wide. Some of them neglected to get out in time. They may total several thousand before we are through. Remember that Prague was a breeding-place for opposition to National Socialism." The head of the Gestapo in Prague is reported to have been more definite: "We have 10,000 arrests to carry out." Already, say Reuter's correspondent, everyone seems to have an acquaintance who has disappeared.
Another priority for Hitler was to establish himself in the eyes of his own people as an invincible leader capable of winning against any odds. His occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria a year later could never have succeeded had he been resisted, but he had shrewdly and correctly judged that he would not be. Hitler now needed to eliminate Czechoslovakia as a potential threat to his Southern flank. If he could do that without provoking Britain and France into war, he would be free to turn his entire military might against the East. However he was militarily at a considerable disadvantage. Czechoslovakia disposed of some thirty-five divisions, approximately the same as Germany, and knew that she would be fighting for her life. On the Western and Northern Fronts there were seventy French divisions and a few Belgian and Dutch. Britain had six, but as yet there was no commitment to Europe. Poland on the Eastern Front was an imponderable for which some contingency plans would have to be made. Clearly, one cannot calculate a nation's military power just by counting its divisions, but there can be no denying that, had Hitler's adversaries agreed upon concerted military action, he could never have succeeded. The German high command knew this and warned Hitler that what he was contemplating was militarily impossible, but Hitler replied: "Don't worry, they won't fight." ....
For Hitler, Munich was a moment of supreme triumph, for Britain one of shame and disaster. Yet it was also to prove Hitler's undoing and the making of Britain. Munich had not given Hitler everything he wanted, but it put him, almost unbelievably, within striking distance of his ultimate goal. Had he been content to continue as he had started, with the same caution and astute sense of timing, quietly waiting until French and British vigilance dissipated, as it surely would without further provocation, it is highly probable that he would have succeeded. Prague he could easily have afforded to leave alone now that he had neutralised Czechoslovakia; a sudden swoop on Danzig and there would then remain only Russia who would have had to fight a hopeless single-handed war. But the triumph of Munich proved too much for Hitler and the temptation to march victoriously into Prague too great, with the result that he abandoned the caution that had served him so well and fatally changed what had hitherto been a winning game. First he aggravated rather than allayed Britain's and France's fears by telling them that the agreement had not given him what he wanted and by rearming yet faster still. Then on 12 March he sent his armies into Prague and followed them three days later. Ensconced in Hradschin Castle, the highest point of the city, and looking triumphantly over the lands he had coveted for so long, he thought that his dream of an Eastern Empire that would last a thousand years had virtually been fulfilled. But within a fortnight the picture was to alter completely. On the last day of March, Chamberlain, though subjected to many conflicting pressures, suddenly decided to offer Poland an unconditional guarantee of military support should her territory be invaded. By any standard it was a courageous, indeed a historic, act, one which has not received the credit that it deserves. On Hitler the effect was instantaneous and dramatic. After a few moments of utter disbelief, he banged on the table in a blind fury and shouted out: "I'll cook them a stew on which they'll choke."